Reply to comrade Steinklopfer, August 2022

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Introduction: We continue to publish contributions to an internal debate relating to the understanding of our concept of decomposition, to inter-imperialist tensions and the threat of war, and to the balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This debate was first made public by the ICC in August 2020 when it published a text by comrade Steinklopfer in which he expressed and explained his disagreements with the resolution on the international situation of the 23rd ICC Congress. This text was accompanied by a response from the ICC and both can be accessed here. The second contribution by the comrade (here) develops his divergencies with the resolution of the 24th Congress and the text below is a further response expressing the position of the ICC. Finally, there is a contribution by comrade Ferdinand (here) also expressing his differences with the resolution of the 24th Congress. A reply to this text will be published in due course. 

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The ICC is more or less alone in considering that the collapse of the eastern imperialist bloc in 1989 marked the beginning of a new phase in the decadence of capitalism – the phase of decomposition, resulting from a historic stalemate between the two major classes in society, neither able to advance its own perspective faced with the historic crisis of the system: world war for the bourgeoisie, world revolution for the working class. This would be the final stage in the long decline of the capitalist mode of production, bringing with it the threat of a descent into barbarism and destruction that could engulf the working class and humanity even without a fully worldwide war between two imperialist blocs[1].

The groups of the proletarian milieu have rarely, if ever, responded to the Theses on Decomposition which laid out the theoretical bases for the concept of decomposition. Some, like the Bordigists, with their idea of the invariance of marxist theory since 1848, have tended to reject the very concept of capitalist decadence. Others, like the Internationalist Communist Tendency, consider our view of decomposition as a phase of mounting chaos and irrational destructiveness to be idealist, even if they don’t disagree that such phenomena exist and are even on the increase. But for these comrades our conception is not directly based on an economic analysis, so cannot be considered to be materialist.

At the same time, despite locating their origins in the Italian communist left, these groups have never accepted our notion of the historic course: the idea that capitalism’s capacity to mobilise society for world war depends on whether it has inflicted a decisive defeat on the world working class, in particular its central battalions. This was certainly the approach of the Left Fraction which published Bilan in the 30s, which insisted that with the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave, the road to a Second World war was open; and it was a method taken up again by the ICC from its inception. In the 1970s and 80s, we argued that, despite a deepening economic crisis and the existence of stable imperialist blocs, capitalism was unable to take decisive steps towards World War Three because it faced an undefeated generation of proletarians who were not willing to make the sacrifices demanded by a march towards war. None of these arguments made sense to the majority of the groups of the milieu who did not factor in the balance of class forces in order to understand the direction that society was taking[2].

The concept of the historic course was a key element in the formulation of the theory of decomposition. In the 1970s, a period characterised by international waves of workers’ struggles in response to the open economic crisis, we still considered that society was heading towards massive class confrontations whose outcome would determine whether the road was open to world war or world revolution. However, towards the end of the 1980s, despite the bourgeoisie’s inability to marshal society for a new world war, it became apparent that the working class was finding it increasingly difficult to affirm its own revolutionary perspective. Paradoxically, the concept of a historic course, of a definite movement towards either world war or massive class struggle, was no longer applicable in the new phase opened up by the historic stalemate, as we clarified at our 23rd International Congress[3]

With some exceptions, the majority of groups of the milieu have also rejected one of the principal conclusions we have drawn from the analysis of decomposition at the level of imperialist conflicts – an analysis further developed in our 1990 orientation text “Militarism and Decomposition” and its update in May 2022 –  that the growing tendency of every man for himself among states, the tide of fragmentation and disorder that characterised this new phase, had become a central element in the difficulty for the bourgeoisie to reconstitute stable imperialist blocs[4]. Most of the groups see the formation of new blocs as being on the agenda today, and indeed have argued that it is quite advanced.  

Although in our view the principal predictions in the Theses on Decomposition and the Orientation Text on militarism have stood the test of time (cf report from 22nd Congress[5]), the war in Ukraine has brought to the fore the divergence with groups who see the rapid movement towards blocs and the imminent threat of a third world war.

Similar ideas have arisen in our own ranks as can be seen in the texts by comrades Steinklopfer and Ferdinand[6]. These comrades however still insist that they agree with the concept of decomposition, although in our view some of their arguments call it into question.

In this article we will explain why we think this is the case in the contribution by comrade Steinklopfer. Although the positions of Steinklopfer and Ferdinand are very similar, they were put forward as individual contributions so we will reply separately.

We will divide our response into three parts: on disagreements about the basic concept of decomposition; on imperialist polarisation; and on the balance of class forces. In responding to the criticisms of comrade Steinklopfer, we will have to spend a considerable amount of time correcting various misrepresentations of the position of the organisation, which in our view derive from a loss of acquisitions on the comrade’s part – a forgetting of some basic elements of our analytical framework. What’s more, some of these misrepresentations have already been answered in previous responses to the comrade’s texts, but are not acknowledged or responded to in later contributions by the comrade. This is the sign of a real difficulty in taking the debate forward.

On the basic concept of decomposition: where is the revisionism?

According to comrade Steniklopfer, however, it is the ICC which is “revising” its understanding of decomposition.

“there is a red thread linking together many of these disagreements, revolving around the question of decomposition. Although the whole organisation shares our analysis of decomposition as the terminal phase of capitalism, when it comes to applying this framework to the present situation, differences of interpretation come to light. What we all agree on is that this terminal phase was not only inaugurated by, but has its deepest roots in, the inability of either of the two major classes of society to open a perspective for humanity as a whole, to unite large parts of society either behind the struggle for world revolution (the proletariat) or behind the mobilisation for generalised warfare (the bourgeoisie). But, for the organisation, there would appear to be a second essential driving force of this terminal phase, this being the tendency of each against all: between states, within the ruling class of each nation state, within bourgeois society at large. On this basis the ICC, as far as imperialist tensions are concerned, tends to underestimate the tendency towards bi-polarity between two leading robber states, the tendency towards the formation of military alliances between states, just as it underestimates the growing danger of direct military confrontations between the big powers, containing a potential dynamic towards some kind of third world war which could possibly wipe out humanity”.

We will come to the question of underestimating the threat of World War Three later on. What we want to make clear at this juncture is that we do not see the tendency towards “every man for himself” as a “second driving force of this terminal phase” in the sense of being an underlying cause of decomposition, which is implied by the comrade’s phrase a “a second essential driving force” and made explicit when he goes on to say that “while agreeing that the bourgeois each against all is a very important characteristic of decomposition, one which played a very important role in the inauguration of the phase of decomposition with the disintegration of the post-World War II imperialist world order in 1989, I do not agree that it is one of its main causes”. While we all agree the tendency for each state to defend its own interests is inherent throughout the history of capitalism, even during the period of stable blocs – or as Steinklopfer puts it, “the bourgeois each for oneself is a permanent and fundamental tendency of capitalism throughout its existence” - this tendency is “released” and exacerbated on a qualitative level during the phase of decomposition. This exacerbation remains a product of decomposition but it has become an increasingly active factor in the world situation, a major impediment to the formation of new blocs.

This brings us to a second key disagreement about the concept of decomposition – the understanding that decomposition, while bringing to fruition all the existing contradictions of decadent capitalism, takes on the character of a qualitative change. According to Steinklopfer, “As I understand it, the organisation is moving towards the position that, with decomposition, there is a new quality in relation to prior phases of decadent capitalism, represented by a kind of absolute domination of the fragmentation tendency. For me, as opposed to this, there is no major tendency in the phase of decomposition which did not already exist beforehand, and in particular in the period of the decadence of capitalism beginning with World War I”.

This seems to be a clear case of the “loss of acquisitions”, the forgetting of what we ourselves have said in our basic texts, in this case, the Theses on Decomposition themselves. Certainly, the Theses agree that “To the extent that contradictions and expressions of decadent capitalism that mark its successive phases do not disappear with time, but continue and deepen, the phase of decomposition appears as the result of an accumulation of all the characteristics of a moribund system, completing the 75-year death agony of a historically condemned mode of production” (Thesis 3). But the same thesis goes on to point out that these characteristics “reach a synthesis and an ultimate conclusion” in the phase of decomposition: in sum, such a synthesis marks the point where quantity turns into quality. Otherwise, what would be the sense in describing decomposition as a new phase within decadence?

On imperialist polarisation

If we go back to the OT on Militarism and Decomposition, it becomes clear that we have never argued that the tendency towards the formation of new blocs disappears in the phase of decomposition. “History (especially of the post-war period) has shown that the disappearance of one imperialist bloc (eg the Axis) implies the dislocation of the other (the ‘Allies’), but also the reconstitution of a new pair of opposing blocs (East and West). This is why the present situation implies, under the pressure of the crisis and military tensions, a tendency towards the re-formation of two new imperialist blocs”.

However, the Theses had already pointed out that

“The constitution of imperialist blocs is not the origin of militarism and imperialism. The opposite is true: the formation of these blocs is only the extreme consequence (which at certain moments can aggravate the causes), an expression (and not the only one), of decadent capitalism's plunge into militarism and war.

In a sense, the formation of blocs is to imperialism as Stalinism is to state capitalism. Just as the end of Stalinism does not mean the end of the historical tendency towards state capitalism, of which it was one manifestation, so the present disappearance of imperialist blocs does not imply the slightest calling into question of imperialism's grip on social life”. And it goes on to say that in the absence of blocs, imperialist antagonisms will take on a new, chaotic, but no less bloody character: “In the new historical period we have entered, and which the Gulf events have confirmed, the world appears as a vast free-for-all, where the tendency of ‘every man for himself’ will operate to the full, and where the alliances between states will be far from having the stability that characterized the imperialist blocs, but will be dominated by the immediate needs of the moment. A world of bloody chaos, where the American policeman will try to maintain a minimum of order by the increasingly massive and brutal use of military force”.

This scenario has been amply demonstrated by the subsequent wars in the Balkans, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the war in Syria, numerous conflicts in Africa, and so on; in particular, the attempts of the US policeman to maintain a minimum of order would become a major factor in the exacerbation of chaos, as we have seen in the Middle East in particular.  

Of course, there is a major limitation in the analysis put forward in the Orientation Text on militarism, published at the beginning of the 1990s. While it correctly demonstrates the inability of new contenders such as Germany and Japan to form a new bloc opposed to the US, it does not predict the rise of China and its capacity to mount a major challenge to US domination. But does this invalidate the OT’s conclusion that the tendency towards the formation of new blocs will not be on the agenda for an indefinite period?

To answer this question, it is necessary to be clear about what the ICC is really saying about the Chinese challenge to the US. According to comrade Steinklopfer,

“In the present analysis of the organisation, however, China is and can never become a serious global challenger of the US, and this because its economic and technological development as seen as a ‘product of decomposition’. According to this interpretation, China cannot be or become any more than a semi-developed country unable to keep pace with the old centres of capitalism in North America, Europe or Japan. Does this interpretation not imply that the idea, if not of a stop to the development of the productive forces – which we rightly always ruled out as a characteristic of decadent capitalism – then at least something falling not far short of this is now being postulated by the organisation for the final phase of decadence? As the attentive reader will notice, the 24th Congress condemns not only the idea of a global Chinese imperialist challenge as amounting to a putting in question of the theoretical analysis of decomposition – the very idea that China has enforced its competitiveness at the expense of its rivals is dismissed as an expressed of my alleged illusions in the good health of Chinese capitalism”.

It’s not at all the case that the organisation’s position is that China “can never become a serious global challenger of the US”. Despite being late in recognising the significance of the rise of China, for some years now the ICC has been insisting that US imperialist strategy – certainly since the Obama years, through the Trump presidency and continuing under Biden– is based on the understanding that its main rival is China, both on the economic and the military level. The report on imperialist tensions published in the wake of the Ukraine war[7] develops the argument that, behind the trap the US has laid for Russia in Ukraine, behind the attempt to bleed Russia dry, the real target of US imperialism is China; and it goes on to talk at some length about the growing “polarisation” between the US and China as a central factor in global imperialist rivalries. But it is an error – and one which we think comrade Steinklopfer falls into - to confuse this process of polarisation, in which US-Chinese rivalries are increasingly taking centre stage in world events, with the actual formation of military blocs, which would imply the development of stable alliances in which one power is able to exert discipline over its “allies”. As we have said, there have been claims within the proletarian milieu that the Ukraine war has marked a significant step in the march towards new military blocs, but in reality we have seen new evidence of the instability of existing alliances:

  • While the US has enjoyed a certain success in reinvigorating NATO under its leadership, it has not ended the urge of countries like Germany and France towards taking an independent line with regard to Russia, as can be seen by attempts at separate negotiations, reluctance to impose bans on the import of Russian energy, and above all a revival both of the EU military force and a huge increase in Germany’s defence budget – a double-edged sword that could go against US interests in the longer term; meanwhile, NATO member Turkey has very clearly been playing its own game in the situation, as witness the deal it brokered between Ukraine and Russia to allow grain supplies to be shipped from Ukrainian ports.
  • China’s “support” for Russia has been extremely low-key despite Russia’s pleas for economic and military aid. No doubt the Chinese ruling class are aware that Russia has fallen into America’s trap and know that a weakened Russia would constitute a huge burden rather than a useful “partner”.
  • A number of countries have maintained an independent stance towards the call to isolate Russia, notably India and a series of countries in South America and Africa.

We should also point out, in response to the charge that the ICC “underestimates the growing danger of direct military confrontations between the big powers”, the report also firmly denies that the non-existence of military blocs makes the world a safer place, on the contrary:

“The absence of blocs paradoxically makes the situation more dangerous insofar as conflicts are characterised by greater unpredictability: ‘By announcing that he was placing his deterrent force on alert, Russian President Vladimir Putin forced all the staffs to update their doctrines, most often inherited from the Cold War. The certainty of mutual annihilation - whose acronym in English MAD means ‘mad’ - is no longer enough to exclude the hypothesis of tactical nuclear strikes, supposedly limited. At the risk of an uncontrolled escalation’ (Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2022, p.1). Indeed, paradoxically, it can be argued that grouping in blocks limited the possibilities of slippage

 - because of the bloc discipline;

 - because of the need to inflict a decisive defeat on the world proletariat in the centres of capitalism beforehand (see the analysis of the historical course in the 1980s).

Thus, even if there is currently no prospect of the constitution of blocs or of a third world war, at the same time the situation is characterised by a greater danger, linked to the intensification of the every man for himself and to growing irrationality: the unpredictability of the development of confrontations, the possibilities of their getting out of hand, which is stronger than in the 1950s to 1980s, mark the phase of decomposition and constitute one of the particularly worrying dimensions of this qualitative acceleration of militarism”.

The danger sketched here is not one in which the bourgeoisie is able to consciously march humanity towards a third world war between blocs, aiming at the conquest of the markets and resources of rival powers. This would imply that one of the key premises of decomposition – the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to offer a perspective to humanity, however barbaric – had been taken out of the equation. Rather it would be the ultimate expression of the spread of irrationality and chaos which are so central to the phase of decomposition. And in a sense Steinklopfer himself acknowledges this, when he says, later on in the text, that an irreversible spiral of destruction could take place even without the formation of blocs: It is of the highest political importance to overcome any schematic, one-sided approach of making the existence of imperialist blocs a precondition for military clashes between the great powers in the present situation”, and he goes on to argue that the very attempt to prevent the formation of new blocs could make a third world war more likely. America’s provocation of Russia is certainly part of an effort to prevent the formation of a new bloc between Russia and China and it could indeed escalate in unforeseeable ways if a desperate Russia decided to take the suicidal path of using its nuclear armoury. But that would be the clearest expression of the warning contained in the Theses that the development of decomposition can compromise humanity’s future even without a general mobilisation of society for world war.

No doubt comrade Steinklopfer will point to a prescient passage in his text (written before the war in Ukraine) where he says that

“The new quality of the phase of decomposition consists, at this level, in the fact that all of the already existing contradictions of a declining mode of production are exacerbated to the hilt. This goes for the tendency of each against all which, most certainly, is exacerbated with decomposition. But the tendency towards wars between the major powers, and thus towards world war, is also exacerbated, as are all the tensions generated by the moves towards the formation of new imperialist blocs and by the moves to foil them. The failure to understand this leads us today to gravely underestimate the danger of war, in particular emerging from the attempts of the United States to use its still existing military superiority against China in order to halt the rise of the latter, just as we are seriously underestimating the danger of military clashes between NATO and Russia (this latter conflict, in the short term at least, being potentially even more dangerous than the Sino-American one since it contains a greater risk of leading to thermo-nuclear warfare)”.

It's certainly true that the ICC initially underestimated the imminence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just as we were late in identifying the Machiavellian manoeuvres of the US which were designed to lure Russia into this trap. But in our view, this was not a refutation of our underlying theoretical framework, but rather the result of a failure to apply it consistently. After all, we had already seen the Covid-19 pandemic as evidence for a new and very serious acceleration of capitalist decomposition, and the Ukraine war has fully confirmed this judgment, showing that the process of decomposition is not simply a slow and gradual descent into the abyss, but will be punctuated by moments of severe intensification and acceleration, such as we are living through today.

Finally, we should make it clear that our view that the rise of China was only possible as a result of decomposition, and of the dissolution of the blocs in particular, does not imply that there has been a “stop to the development of the productive forces” preventing China becoming a serious rival to the US. Rather, China’s development is a shining example of what, following Marx, we have described as “growth as decay”[8], a process where the very amassing of productive forces brings with it new threats to humanity’s future: through ecological devastation, the “production” of pandemics and the sharpening of military antagonisms. Not only is Chinese growth a result of decomposition, it has become a powerful factor in its acceleration. Arguing, as comrade Steinklopfer does, that it has taken place “despite decomposition” removes an understanding of China’s rise from our general framework of analysis.

On the class struggle

When we come to the assessment of the current state of the class struggle, we again have to spend some time in our response insisting that comrade Steinklopfer’s portrayal of our position is not at all accurate.

  • The comrade repeats the argument that we no longer consider the proletariat’s lack of perspective as a factor in the retreat of the class struggle: “It was already striking in the resolution of the 23rd Congress that the problem of the weakness, soon becoming an absence of a proletarian revolutionary perspective, is not put forward as central in explaining the problems of the workers’ struggles during the 1980s”. We already answered this in our previous published reply to Steinklopfer’s article on the 23rd Congress: “comrade Steinklopfer suggests that the resolution on the balance of forces from the 23rd Congress is no longer concerned with the problem of revolutionary perspective, and that this factor has disappeared from our understanding of the causes (and consequences) of decomposition. In fact, the question of the politicisation of the class struggle and the bourgeoisie’s efforts to prevent its development is at the heart of the resolution”[9]. It could hardly be otherwise because the whole basis of the Theses on Decomposition is the argument that if the capitalist world is in a state of agony and disintegration, it is above all because neither of the two major classes in society is able to offer a perspective for the future of humanity.
  • Steinklopfer is similarly wrong when he argues that the ICC is now pinning its hopes on a simple increase in combativity, a kind of automatic leap to revolutionary consciousness pushed by the crisis, a councilist or economist view which neglects the role of revolutionary theory (and thus the revolutionary organisation). But we have never denied the necessity for struggles to politicise and the key role of the political organisations in this development, nor the negative weight of the organic break and the separation of the political organisations from the class. It’s certainly true that no revolutionary organisation is immune from making concessions to councilist, economist, or immediatist errors, but we consider that when such errors do occur, they are at variance with our fundamental analytical framework, which is what gives us the capacity to criticise and overcome them[10].

On the other hand, we considered that Steinklopfer’s seeming dismissal of the central importance of the defensive struggle of the working class against the impact of the economic crisis – explicitly affirmed in the concluding section of the Theses on Decomposition as a vital antidote to being engulfed in the process of social putrefaction – was opening the door to modernist ideas. Not in the explicit sense of those who call on workers to abandon their defensive struggles or who demand the immediate self-negation of the proletariat in the revolutionary process. The comrade in his recent text clearly asserts that he considers the defensive struggles to be indispensable to the future recovery of class identity and a revolutionary perspective. The problem lies in the tendency to separate the economic dimension of the struggle from its political dimension and thus not to recognise the implicitly political element in even the "smallest” expression of class resistance. In his previous text, there seemed to be a clear expression of this separation between the political/theoretical dimension in the apparent view that the theoretical contribution of the revolutionary organisation could of itself compensate for the missing political dimension in the day-to-day defensive struggle, a view which we criticised as verging on substitutionism[11]. In the new contribution Steinklopfer has clarified that the development of the theoretical dimension can’t be the work of a minority alone but ultimately has to be the work of millions of proletarians. Well and good, but then the comrade claims that it is the majority of the ICC which has forgotten this. “The organisation however, has perhaps forgotten that the proletarian masses are capable of participating in this work of theoretical reflection”. We have indeed not forgotten this. One of the reasons we accorded so much importance to the Indignados movement of 2011, for example, was that it was characterised by a very lively culture debate in the assemblies, where questions about the origins of the capitalist crisis and the future of society were raised and discussed as being just as relevant to the movement as decisions about immediate forms of action[12].

However, there is a very important component in the capacity of the working class “en masse” to reappropriate the theoretical dimension of its combat, and that is the process of “subterranean maturation”, by which we mean that, even in periods where the class as a whole is in retreat, a process of politicisation can still take place among a minority of the class, some of whom will of course gravitate towards the political organisations of the communist left. It is this often “hidden” aspect of politicisation in the class that will come to fruit in more widespread and massive class movements.

In the report on class struggle to the 24th ICC Congress[13], we pointed out that comrade Steinklopfer is either abandoning or undermining the concept of subterranean maturation by asserting that we are in fact seeing a process of “subterranean regression” in the working class. We argued that this ignores the reality of searching elements responding to the desperate state of capitalist society, despite the evident extreme difficulties in the class becoming aware of itself at a more general level the revolutionary organisation has the task of assisting these elements take their reflections further and understand all their implications on the theoretical and organisational levels. On the other hand, the concept of subterranean regression can only result in an underestimation of the importance of this work towards the searching minorities.

In the new text, the position of the comrade towards the notion of subterranean regression remains very unclear. On the one hand, it is neither defended nor repudiated. On the other hand, just before charging the ICC with forgetting that the proletarian masses are capable of reflection, he seems to edge back towards the notion of a dynamic of subterranean maturation: “Theoretical work is the task, not of revolutionaries alone, but of the working class as a whole. Since the process of the development of the proletariat is an uneven one, it is in particular the task of the more politicised layers of the proletariat to assume this task; minorities therefore, yes, but still potentially comprising millions of workers, and who, instead of substituting themselves for the whole, press forward to impulse and stimulate the rest. Revolutionaries, for their part, have the specific task of orienting and enriching this reflection to be accomplished by millions. This responsibility of revolutionaries is at the very least as important as that of intervening towards strike movements, for example”. What remains unclear in the comrade’s assessment is whether or not this potential for political maturation is something for the future or one which is already taking place, even on a very small scale.

On the question of defeats

What comrade Steinklopfer does continue to insist on in the new text is the importance of the set-backs, the political defeats, which the working class has been through since the initial resurgence of the class struggle in the late 60s, which ended the previous period of counter-revolution. In his view, the ICC’s majority is underestimating the depth of these defeats and this – along with our amnesia about the capacity of the masses for theoretical reflection - expresses a loss of confidence in the proletariat on our part: 

“This loss of confidence expresses itself in the rejection of any idea that the proletariat has suffered important political defeats in the decades which followed 1968. Lacking this confidence, we end up downplaying the importance of these very serious political setbacks, consoling ourselves with the daily defensive struggles as the main crucible of a way forward – in my eyes a significant concession to an ‘economistic’ approach to the class struggle such as was criticised by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg at the beginning of the 20th century. The understanding of an ‘undefeated proletariat’, which was a correct and very important insight in the 1970s and still in the 1980s, has become an article of faith, an empty dogma, preventing a serious, scientific analysis of the balance of forces”

Enumerating these defeats, the comrade in a proposed amendment to the resolution on the international situation from the 24th Congress refers to (a) the inability of the first international wave to develop the political aspect of the struggle, a potential announced in particular by the events of May-June 1968 in France (b) the impact of the collapse of the eastern bloc and the ensuing campaigns against communism and (c) the failure of the class to respond to the economic crisis of 2008 , a failure which paved the way for the rise of populism.

It is hardly sustainable that the ICC has rejected “any idea that the proletariat has suffered important defeats in the decades which followed 1968”. Comrade Steinklopfer himself recognises that the very concept of decomposition is based on our recognition that the proletariat was not able to realise the revolutionary political potential contained in the workers’ struggles of the 70s and 80s; moreover, the understanding that the collapse of the eastern bloc initiated a profound retreat in class combativity and consciousness has been central to our analyses for the past thirty years; and we can certainly point to any number of important class movements which have been roundly defeated by the ruling class, from the mass strike in Poland in 1980 to the British miners in 1985, the Indignados in 2011, and so on (as Rosa Luxemburg famously insisted, the proletarian class struggle is the only form of war in which final victory can only be prepared by a series of defeats).

What the ICC rejects is not the reality or importance of particular defeats, failures or set-backs, but the idea that the ones that have occurred since the 1980s amount to a historic defeat comparable to what happened in the 20s and 30s, in which the working class in the main centres of capitalism has been reduced to the condition where it is ready to accept being marched off to war to “solve” the problems of the system. We don’t think this is an empty dogma but continues to have operational value, most importantly with regard to the current war in Ukraine, where the bourgeoisie of the US and western Europe has been at extreme pains to avoid using “boots on the ground”, let alone any direct mobilisation of the proletarian masses in the conflict between NATO and Russia.

Certainly, in the period of decomposition, we cannot see such a historic defeat in the same way as we did in the 1968-89 period, where it would have been predicated on the bourgeoisie emerging victorious from a decisive and direct confrontation between the classes. In the period of decomposition, there is a very real danger that the proletariat will be progressively undermined by the disintegration of society without even mounting a major challenge to the bourgeoisie. And revolutionaries have to constantly assess whether this “point of no return” has been reached. In our view, the continuing signs of class resistance to the onslaught on living standards (eg in 2019 and again today, notably in Britain at the time of writing) is one sign that we are not there yet; another is the emergence of searching minorities around the world.

In contrast, comrade Steinklopfer seems to be regressing to the approach that was valid in the previous period when the concept of the historic course was fully applicable, but which no longer hold true in the phase of decomposition. Without specifying what has changed and what remains the same in the new phase, the comrade seems to be drifting towards the view that the working class has been through a defeat on such a significant historical level that the course towards world war has been reopened. He does not say what consequences this might have, particularly for the activity of the revolutionary organisation, and he puts forward many caveats and qualifications: “Not only is the proletariat not wanting to be marched off to such a war, the bourgeoisie itself does not intend to march anyone off into a third world war”.

Ambiguities of this kind, as we have noted, proliferate throughout the text and this is why we don’t think that that the comrade’s current analysis offers a way forward for the organisation.

Amos

 


[1] Theses on Decomposition, International Review 107

[2] The group Internationalist Voice is a clear exception here. “Contrary to speculation that this war is the beginning of World War III, we believe that World War III is not on the agenda of the world bourgeoisie. In order for a world war to take place, the following two conditions must be satisfied:

  • the existence of two political, economic and military imperialist blocks
  • a working class which has been defeated worldwide.

In recent decades, the essential preconditions for a world war have not been met. On the one hand, each of the major players – gangsters – is thinking of its own imperialist interests. On the other hand, although the working class is not ready to provide the support necessary for the alternative (i.e., a communist revolution against the barbarity of the capitalist system) and has retreated over the last decade, it has not been defeated. Therefore, any imperialist wars that may ignite tend to be at a regional level and proxy wars. Although there is a kind of alliance between Russia and China, and some Russian military actions have the tacit support of China, we must not forget that each of these powers is pursuing its own imperialist interests, and these will inevitably conflict with one another from time to time”. https://en.internationalistvoice.org/the-russian-military-campaign-nato-...

[3] Report on the question of the historic course, International Review 164, https://en.internationalism.org/content/16805/report-question-historic-c...

[10] See for example International Review 167, https://en.internationalism.org/content/17054/report-international-class-struggle-24th-icc-congress. The report supports a criticism made of the report on the workers’ struggles in France in 2019 adopted by the 24th Congress of our section in France, which contained an overestimation of the level of politicisation in these movements, and ”therefore opens the door to a councilist vision” 

[11] https://en.internationalism.org/content/16898/internal-debate-icc-intern...

Rubric: 

Internal debate on the world situation